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Fall Back 

An Independent readers guide for shorter days and longer nights

In "Poem to Be Read at 3 A.M.," Donald Justice offers this little nugget of insight:

Excepting the diner
On the outskirts
The town of Ladora
At 3 A.M.
Was dark but
For my headlights
And up in
One second-story room
A single light
Where someone
Was sick or
Perhaps reading
As I drove past
At seventy
Not thinking
This poem
Is for whoever
Had the light on

The publishing industry goes nuts putting out new books in the autumn, and we become the reader with the light on -- unseen in the warm cocoon of the bedroom. As the nights grow longer and colder, we draw inward, while books remind of us the big world outside, transporting us to places we may or may not have been before.

Pull up the comforter. Put down your Independent and pick up a book. There are so many to read, and so much time.

(Note: The Justice poem appears in Good Poems, the recently released anthology selected and introduced by Lake Wobegon favorite son Garrison Keillor. It's excellent just-before-bed and right-upon-waking reading, with selections organized under whimsical headings such as "Lovers," "Day's Work" "Snow," "Complaint," "Sons and Daughters," and "O Lord." Keillor's down-home wisdom and sleepy schmaltz shine through the selections. You can almost hear his sonorous voice as you read these poems to yourself,)

Short stories

After The Quake: Stories
Haruki Murakami
Knopf, $21

If you've ever read the novels of Haruki Murakami (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, Norwegian Wood), then you know how deftly this Japanese storyteller can wend his way through genres, always improbably spinning the worlds of myth and fable into the complex woof of post-everything life. His prose is Spartan, yet accurate -- lyrical when necessary without being self-indulgent when the story needs to advance.

In his latest book, After the Quake, a rare collection of short stories, Murakami has become even more spare and direct in his address of the apocalyptic, millennial spirit.

Set around the Kobe earthquake that devastated Japan in 1995, the stories in this book trace the hearts of six ordinary people clawing for meaning in the rubble of a culture crumbling away from its own traditions.

In the opening story, "UFO in Kushiro," staid, settled and successful hi-fi equipment salesman Komura finds himself suddenly abandoned by his ordinary wife when she becomes obsessed with the earthquake coverage.

"The problem is that you never give me anything," she writes in her Dear John letter, "Or to put it more precisely, you have nothing inside you that you can give me. You are good and kind and handsome, but living with you is like living with a chunk of air."

When Komura's co-worker asks him to deliver a package of unspecified contents to the cold winter town of Hokkaido, Komura decides it's a good enough opportunity for a vacation.

Upon arrival, Komura is greeted by Keiko and Shimao, the two women who have come for the box. After retiring to a cheap hotel, Keiko disappears with the box while Shimao tries to seduce Komura. Komura's impotence causes him to belatedly obsess over the contents of the box as becomes apparent that his life is also a package that's too late to open.

"It's because that box contains the something that was inside you," says Shimao when Komura begins wondering about the box and his "chunk of air" life.

Emptiness and this unknown "something" that might fill it are what haunt all the characters in these stories when the earthquake rattles their dormant boxes.

In "Landscape with Flatiron," a lonely young dropout falls in love with the death wish of an older painter whose obsession is building perfectly crafted bonfires on the beach.

"All God's Children Can Dance" tells the story of Yoshiya, a fatherless young man with an unusually large penis who was raised believing he was immaculately conceived -- "a child of God." When his mother reveals to him that her gynecologist, a man with a chewed-off earlobe, is his father, Yoshiya stalks the man he believes to be the one into a dark ghetto where he finds nothing but the ever-widening mystery of himself.

A lonely pathologist and divorce on vacation in Thailand confronts the irrational wisdom of a seer. A banker must help a giant frog save Tokyo from an earthquake caused by a mythical underground worm. And an aging short-story writer finds himself face to face with the most terrifying possibility of all: the opportunity to love.

What's most impressive about this volume is the quiet dignity with which all these empty characters are ultimately portrayed. That the earthquake has caused them to face their personal devastation ultimately makes the tertiary act of nature the hero of the book. And it isn't hard to substitute the events of 9/11 for the Kobe earthquake, or to imagine that these characters are your neighbors.

-- Noel Black

Her Kind of Want
Jennifer Davis
University of Iowa Press, $12.95

Winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, Jennifer Davis's debut marks the work of a storyteller who has found her ideal form. Crackling with real-world hurt and humor, these stories visit the hopes and dreams of the small-town folks of Tallassee, Ala., a place where a girl could die of want if not for resourcefulness and imagination.

In the introductory story, "Rewriting Girl," the main character, Little Hula, runs away from Tallassee to Montana with Sean, a writer who tries hard to imitate Southern, though he's really from Philadelphia. "I didn't know how to tell him that wearing a fishing lure in your ear like he tended to do isn't tacky redneck, but just tacky, and Southern is a hard life you didn't want to acquire," says Hula.

Davis's love for people who work hard to transcend their tired lives shines through in these stories. In "The Ballad of My Father's Redneck Wife," a bored housewife in a lifeless marriage discovers that her buttoned-up, Scotch-drinking, Mercedes-driving father has a secret past -- a first wife he loved so passionately he was arrested for howling in the streets of his hometown when she ran off with another man.

The narrator sets out to find Bebe Hicks, the woman who might have been her mother, and to escape, for just one night, the suffocating confines of her marriage and her sterile family life: "For those of you with inanimate, frigid parents, parents whose voices or tempers rarely flare, you will understand why this was such an important development," she explains. "You will understand what years of quiet voices and cool hugs and cutting looks can do to a woman, what that kind of environment breeds, what you are left with."

"Tammy, Imagined" traces the fantasy life of a 16-year-old girl whose parents are so wrapped up in their own drama that they don't see her venturing into dangerous territory, trying hard to grow up fast and not knowing how. "When You See" visits the small wishes of a woman who has lost three true loves to sudden death. Delicately delineating the fine line between transcendent and just-so existence, Davis renders a character anyone would recognize, riddled with loss but never giving up the dream.

Davis uses plain language, refusing to sink to derision or parody. This is her world -- well loved and worn -- a place where ordinary people display extraordinary strength in the face of change, terror and the biggest killer of all, just plain boredom.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

I, Rhoda Manning, Go Hunting with My Daddy
Ellen Gilchrist
Little, Brown and Company, $25.95

Rhoda Manning -- temptress, hedonist, serial divorce, artist, life force -- is one the most fully realized characters in modern American fiction. For more than 20 years, Ellen Gilchrist, author of the National Book Award-winner Victory Over Japan, has regaled willing readers with Rhoda's misadventures in love and marriage, tales of her rebellious childhood and elegant descriptions of the temptations and passions that keep her ticking.

Here we see Rhoda at the end of middle age, looking back on her relationship with her powerful, overwhelming father, Big Dudley, now dead. At the center of the book is the long story "Entropy," chronicling the Christmas that Big Dudley moved from the family home in Mississippi to Wyoming in search of a landscape big enough to satisfy his huge appetite for living. Gilchrist tells how Big Dudley, determined to orchestrate an adventure for the entire extended family, takes them all on a ski vacation, while Rhoda's teen-age sons, James and Malcolm, are busy sneaking joints in the restroom every step of the way.

Here, in characteristically incisive prose, she describes the male ethos of Rhoda's family in a nutshell: "The old man stood almost without breathing and watched his grandsons tearing down the black run, hatless, crazy, as much like him as his own sons because his daughter had married a man as strong as he was, with a dick as big and with the same hard driving intensity that made them hate each other."

The collection includes other familiar Gilchrist characters but focuses largely on Rhoda and her daddy -- he, dead and buried, and she, looking back on all that he gave her and all the ways they tormented one another. Gilchrist's fiction is packed with vital, flawed characters who want nothing more than all of life itself. Any chance to visit them is welcome -- it's like finally coming across an ice-cream stand after a long, hot drive on a summer's day: fattening, indulgent, refreshing and utterly, decadently delicious.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

Novels

The Last Girls
Lee Smith
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $24.95

Ruby River
Lynn Pruett
Atlantic Monthly Press, $24

July, July
Tim O'Brien
Houghton Mifflin, $26

In the River Sweet
Patricia Henley
Alfred A. Knopf, $24

Sometimes you just want to read a good, solid page-turner; a B-plus novel that doesn't wrench your brain; a tale of familiar people slopping along in life, finding happiness in unexpected places and misery in their own back yards.

Here are four B-plus novels, recently published, most with appealing characters, all with strong senses of time and setting. They won't rock your world, but they'll keep you reading, lulling you to sleep without knocking you out. Three are by established A-plus authors; one is a first novel.

Lee Smith's The Last Girls tells the story of a reunion -- four women come together to cruise down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, 35 years after their maiden voyage on a raft, the year they were juniors together at a Southern all-girls college. Pre-women's lib back then, they were "the last girls," blithe and innocent, headed toward pre-ordained lives as wives, mothers or, God forbid, old maids. Missing from the reunion is the fiery girl who fascinated them all during their college days, Baby Ballou, whose ashes they will disperse at the end of their journey.

Smith skips around from one character's point-of-view to another as we roll down the lazy river with them, revealing how each woman has defined herself and what rough waters she has negotiated. Our interest is perked by the book's general structure and premise and Smith, as always, delivers funny, knowing, fully fleshed characters.

A North Carolina novelist with a voice that crosses Patsy Cline with Martina McBride, via Eudora Welty, Smith writes best when she sets her books in the past. Her underappreciated masterwork The Devil's Dream tells the story of the underpinnings of the country music industry, stretches out over a 100-year period in the backwoods of Virginia and West Virginia, and soars with its musicality. The Last Girls, by comparison, is a decidedly minor work, but a pleasure nonetheless.

Tim O'Brien, acknowledged spokesperson for the Vietnam generation, much heralded for his riveting and award-winning books Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried, has turned to comedy in his last two books, Tomcat in Love and his most recent July, July. Critics have lambasted him for it, too.

O'Brien has taken his men into middle age and is apparently befuddled and delighted with the conflict between the seriousness of the time when they came of age and the ridiculousness of where they find themselves at age 50. His comedies are ribald, lustful, irreverent and funny as all get-out, critics be damned.

In July, July he depicts the 30-year college reunion of the Darton Hall College class of 1969 in Minnesota. Ten friends gather to honor the past, each carrying demons that populate the road to full-blown adulthood -- divorce, shell shock, work, children, forgotten dreams, failed romances and vaguely held hope that things will eventually all turn out fine. O'Brien's a master of comic structure and keeps the reader looking ahead as he zips through his characters' lives. July, July is laugh-aloud funny with some dark and all-too-familiar undercurrents, blending recent history with regrettable loss and fond reunion with the search for a good doobie.

In In the River Sweet, Patricia Henley, heralded for her first novel Hummingbird House, revisits Vietnam through the memories of Ruth Anne Bond, a solid Midwestern woman who is awakened from her satisfied life one day when she receives a message from a man asking the chilling question: Are you my mother?

Ruth Anne is married and still in love with her high-school sweetheart Johnny, who doesn't know about the time in his wife's life when he was a young soldier in the war and she was a volunteer at a French convent in Saigon. There she befriended and was impregnated by a Vietnamese man, gave birth, then came back to America leaving the baby behind. Thirty years later, she must face the decisions of her past, the complications of her present life, including the vulnerability of her daughter Laurel who has recently engaged in a lesbian relationship, and the course of her future as a mother, a wife and a searching woman.

Henley weaves in Ruth Anne's spiritual quest, meditating on questions of family and faith with a narrator's voice that avoids heavy-handedness. In the River Sweet is a strong tale, well told.

Lynn Pruett's first novel Ruby River falls into the Fannie Flagg school of good old girls, truck stops, small towns, small-minded people and the fierceness of a good waitress crossed. At its center is Hattie Bohannon, the recently widowed owner of a truck stop where her three older daughters all work and her youngest daughter is always underfoot. When the good Ladies of the Church of the Holy Resurrection get their panties in a bunch over a rumor of prostitution and lascivious behavior at the diner and stage a boycott, the Bohannons enter into a battle for economic survival and honor, waging war with each other privately as they stand firmly together publicly.

Filled with colorful characters, especially the sexually frustrated pastor of Holy Resurrection, Ruby River entertains effortlessly. Pruett's choice of switching voices and tenses is questionable and only works some of the time. This tale is worthy of a better narrative structure. But what she lacks in plotting, she more than makes up for with her tough characters, unflagging humor and splendid sense of place.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

Essays

How to Be Alone
Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24

The "it" author of last year, Jonathan Franzen reinvented and reinvigorated the social novel with The Corrections, winner of the National Book Award, his long journey through suburbia, entropy and the great lost American dream.

While his novel was fermenting and critics were measuring it for posterity, Franzen was busy churning out essays, most of them published in Harper's and The New Yorker, all of them erudite, insightful and painstakingly exact in their measurement of the forces that drive postmodern life in mass-marketed, imperial America. They are collected here in a slim volume, dense in thought, heavy on reflection and balanced with a careful, scholarly tone.

Franzen explores subjects as disparate and often banal as the U.S. Postal Service and the "Supermax" federal penitentiary in Florence, Colo. (Local readers might be interested to know that in "Control Units," Franzen casually mentions that he once lived in Colorado Springs. According to his publicist, he was here for two years in the early '90s, following his then-wife out West, lived on Cascade and rented an office in "a small building across the street from Poor Richard's.")

Cigarette addiction, noise pollution and the right to privacy are seen through Franzen's dissecting eyes here, as well as his best-known moment of celebrity when he balked at The Corrections being named an official selection of Oprah's Book Club.

The two best essays in the book are perhaps also his best known. "My Father's Brain," which first appeared in The New Yorker, painstakingly describes his father's descent into Alzheimer's disease and helplessness. It is possibly the most revealing and haunting work yet written on the subject, and certainly Franzen's most personal piece of work. "Why Bother" is Franzen's famed Harper's essay, published in 1996, on the search for meaning in postmodern fiction. While it aroused much discussion and some anomie in the literary community when it was first published, it comes off much milder and reflective in light of the publication of The Corrections, the proverbial 13-pound baby with a big head, born through a narrow birth canal. The guy was depressed, and giving birth to that book, one can only imagine, must have been living hell.

Franzen concludes the essay with his personal novelist's mission statement. "Even if Silicon Valley manages to plant a virtual-reality helmet in every American household, even if serious reading dwindles to near-nothingness, there remains a hungry world beyond our borders, a national debt that government-by-television can do little more than wring its hands over, and the good old apocalyptic horsemen of war, disease and environmental degradation," he notes. Tragic realism, his chosen form, in the words of Flannery O'Connor, concerns itself with "a poverty fundamental to man." Franzen, finally, includes himself among those authors happy to belong to a world twisting in its own noose, searching for salvation among the ruins.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

The Bitch in the House
Edited by Cathi Hanauer
William Morrow, $23.95

Publishers love the "concept" essay collection -- pick a topic, any topic, then get 20 or 30 well-known writers to wax rhapsodic over it. That is the basic construct of this collection, reflecting collectively on the dilemma of modern women who want it all -- career, power suits, romance, husband and baby.

The Bitch in the House contains some lovely pieces of insight, like this one from novelist and magazine editor Elissa Schappell: "I didn't want to be a bad mother. I wanted to be my mother -- safe, protective, rational, calm -- without giving up all my anger, because my anger fueled me." Unfortunately, it contains more droning, whining explanations of the difficulty of having it all. What's a Vassar-educated, well-groomed girl with a job in the city, a house in the suburbs, an enlightened husband, a great kid, a 401-K and an SUV to do?

Yes, young women today have difficult choices to make and many roles to juggle, but this collection quickly turns into a bitchy harangue, repeating the woes of a bunch of successful women who actually do have it all. After the first ten 10 essays or so, it begins to feel like an extended support group over martinis. The self-reflection of these women glazes over in its repetitiveness and near absence of meaningful social context.

The book improves near the end when older authors are asked to reflect on their travails on the path toward liberated womanhood. Natalie Kusz's essay on being fat, "The Fat Lady Sings," focuses an exacting eye on perception and reality, dieting and being. Vivian Gornick's "What Independence Has Come to Mean to Me" is a brilliant reflection on solitude, loneliness, independence and the privilege of being a woman living now, "to be alive in times that make room for me and my kind: women living out the conflicts rather than the fantasies."

Colorado author Pam Houston provides the strong, concluding essay, "The Perfect Equality of Our Separate Chosen Paths: Becoming a Mother. Or Not." Any career woman struggling with that decision -- whether to have a child -- would do well to consider Houston's brave reflections. Faced with infinite choice, understanding sacrifice, recognizing the abundance and joy to be found in both solitary and shared lives, Houston dishes straight dirt about the real task facing the bitch in the house -- the hard work of growing up.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

Nonfiction

The New White Nationalism in America
By Carol Swain
Cambridge Press, $30

White-power advocates make for the ultimate sound-bite bogeymen: They come equipped with photogenic robes and rituals, deny one holocaust while issuing invites to another, and hurl invectives incendiary enough to make Pat Buchanan look like a squeaky centrist. But what happens when today's Hitler-huggers stop calling for a racial holy war? What does it mean when their rhetoric is more like a Rainbow Coalition press release than a gun show plenary session?

Take a spiffy cracker like Jared Taylor, founder of American Renaissance, an organization that attracts a cornucopia of far-right activists and intellectuals. He's a Yale alum, author of an acclaimed book on Japanese culture, and difficult to dismiss as a mere crank. Ditto that for his comrade Sam Francis, a Washington Times writer who was fired after Dinesh D'Souza reported in The End of Racism a speech he made at the 1994 American Renaissance conference. "What we as whites must do," Francis said, "is reassert our identity and our solidarity, and we must do so in explicitly racial terms through the articulation of a racial consciousness as whites."

With the racialist right using the discourse of multiculturalism like a child's toy, it appears that the chickens of identity politics have come home to roost, as Vanderbilt University professor Carol Swain explains in her latest tome, The New White Nationalism in America: Its Challenge to Integration. Swain originally set out to write about affirmative action when intuition led her to investigate how the issue was being used by white supremacists. The result is this new volume, which ends up tackling both of these issues and a few more to boot.

While interviewing leading members of the far right, Swain found a movement bearing little resemblance to the media-induced image of foaming skinheads. Today's new and improved "white nationalists" understand the inanity of neo-Nazi posturing. They have traded cross-burning tactics for Web sites and media-savvy Ivy League frontmen in an effort to win an ideological war for white hearts and minds. And Swain is convinced they are set for an insurgency.

These "new" white nationalists, of course, are not that new; many are disrobed Klansmen who have refined their spin. Their organizations have innocuous names like David Duke's National Organization for European American Rights, or the holocaust-denying Institute for Historical Review. Swain argues that a confluence of factors will soon offer them an opportunity to reach into mainstream political discourse. These include the waning majority status of white Americans, increased non-white immigration, continued racial preferences in higher education and job selection, a disproportionately high rate of black-on-white violent crime and the decrease in well-paid blue-collar jobs due to globalization. As whites become a minority, Swain contends, they will behave like other minority groups and assert a collective interest. All this paves the path for what she believes to be an American future of "unprecedented racial conflict."

It's hard to fault Swain for being too vigilant against a perceived American Balkanization. But while she does an excellent job of contextualizing the issues that white nationalists will organize around, she never quite explains how they will ascend to power. That the cultural transformation of the civil rights movement will be undone by an inchoate and historically precarious "white" identity politics seems a bit of a stretch; as the pages turn her urgent tone starts to smell like a bookseller's marketing ploy.

White nationalists may exploit issues like affirmative action and immigration, but Swain exploits them right back by using their alleged juggernaut to trumpet her own conservative agenda. Her approach is simple: Co-opt those most likely to fall prey to white nationalists by hijacking their agenda (think Clinton and welfare). A born-again Christian from a working-class background, and an African American with a prestigious academic resume, Swain is the sort of black intellectual white conservatives soil themselves over. But her book reeks of a scam when the reader realizes that it's as devoted to conservative polemics as its purported subject.

Perhaps the newest and sharpest ideas in The New White Nationalism concern double standards of racial identity. "Many proponents of multiculturalism allow and encourage the expression of group pride by cultural groups deemed worthy of such expression, but any group (e.g., a college white pride group) whose ideas are viewed as outside of the mainstream or at odds with what the multiculturalists themselves believe is denied both resources and forums that are generally open to other, more acceptable cultural groups." However flawed the construct of a white identity, it's hard to dismiss the contradiction.

Even if you don't agree with Swain's starkly conservative views -- her "love the sinner, hate the sin" cheap shot at gays is as loathsome as it is out of place -- she conveys her arguments effectively, though her conclusions sound more like assumptions than well-reasoned arguments. Her prose often feels like an interoffice memorandum, but the ideas she chews on and the assumptions she challenges are worth the engagement.

-- John Dicker

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